The Write Stuff
Based in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, Yard-O-Led has been hand-making silver-cased writing instruments for generations. Timothy Barber meets its new owner, an entrepreneur bent on bringing back the joy of handwriting
April 21 2020
BY TIM BARBER
Next time you find yourself reaching for a propelling pencil, consider this: In your hand is a piece of 200-year-old English technology. In 1816, Sampson Mordan, a London silversmith, filed the first patent for an “Eversharp” metal pencil with an internal mechanism that could propel a thin shaft of lead forwards; and a later expansion of his concept by a Hatton Garden-based German, Ludwig Brenner, introduced a pencil holding multiple shafts of lead at once. Brenner named his company Yard-O-Led, since his pencils’ 12 three-inch leads amounted to a yard in total. What the name didn’t reference was the fact that the business was rooted in exquisite silversmithing. And it still is.
Today, Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a buzzing nexus of near-extinct artisanal crafts, is home to Yard-O-Led’s workshops. Here, a little cabal of makers continues crafting exquisite silver writing instruments – pens as well as pencils – that have been treasured as collector’s items for decades. Found in the likes of Harrods and Selfridges, it also exclusively supplies the luxury stationer Smythson.
“We’ve got guys working for us who’ve been with Yard-O-Led 20 or 30 years, and when older pieces come back for servicing, they know instantly from looking at it who created it,” says the company’s boss, Emma Field. “There’s really no manual for this – it’s learned from one silversmith to another, generation to generation.”
In Field’s case that applies to management as well, having taken over running Yard-O-Led from her father, Robin. He oversaw it when he ran the firm’s previous owner, Filofax, from whom he eventually bought it in 2014. A few years later his daughter ditched a successful career in the digital luxury sector to take on a fundamentally grittier challenge – raising a heritage craft name in a world that’s almost forgotten the value of the objects such firms make, and of the firms themselves.
“A few years ago we were fighting for survival,” admits Field, who turned things around and finally bought out her Pa’s majority shareholding earlier this year. The market for fine writing instruments, Field points out, has yet to see the boom enjoyed by other analogue items of value, like Swiss watches and vinyl records, but she is convinced it’s coming, including among millennials.
“You’re not just owning a Swiss watch to tell the time, it’s to understand and enjoy a piece of craft, and this is the same,” she says. “Pull out a Parker pen and no one will care, but produce a Yard-O-Led in a meeting, or when you’re signing something special, and it’s a thing of real worth. It tells a story.” That story goes all the way back to Sampson Mordan’s invention, whose patent Yard-O-Led still owns, and takes in decades of making fine silver goods besides pencils, such as some particularly dinky cocktail swizzlers from the pre-War heyday. Now it’s strictly writing instruments, which are all made from fine sterling silver.
Either round or hexagonal, these are decorated with engine-turned patterns or, for something truly grand, with elaborate hammered engravings – or “chasing” – in a Victorian floral style. From start to final polishing, it’s a 12-stage process entirely carried out in the Birmingham workshop. The appeal may be bound up in craft and heritage – the pencils still contain exactly a yard of lead refills – but Field says something more fundamental underlies all that.
“There is still a joy to writing, even if you’re just making notes at your desk. We’re all addicted to texts, but if you write someone a love note or a thank you letter, it’s generous, it shows you’ve put something of yourself into it. It’s personal – and that’s really what we’re trying to sell – that gift of writing.”